Skip to content

From Lane to Pool: Expanding Cross-Team Collaboration on Experience Teams

Devin Harold @ Capital One

No matter our titles, we all need to be active contributors to every part of the product development process to ensure its success. Don't let the silos of our titles undermine our valued, divergent perspectives. Devin Harold shares a case study for empowering more hands-on collaboration that injects empathy and created synergies across team members.


Devin Harold:

Thank you so much, Nikki. Really appreciate being here, and I'm really excited to share with everybody my point of view on what it means to cross-collaborate in this ever-changing adapting practice of ours. I want to start by giving everyone a little bit of background into a little bit of my personal career experience, because I think it helps to shape my perspective that I'll be sharing with everyone today.

So I've been in the UX field for over 10 years. I started actually as a designer and was working in a various agencies in a consulting model, working with clients on helping to understand their business needs, their customer needs, and then making active recommendations and redesigning their websites and migrating their content from one CMS content management system to another, to help spearhead improvements to their customer experience. And throughout that experience at these various agencies, I was working elbow to elbow with our designers, our product teams, our content strategists. Oh, do I hear any background?

Okay, sorry about that. So as I was working with these product teams, we were working really closely together, collaborating elbow to elbow. And then over I think close to five years ago, I moved to New York and pursued an opportunity in-house at Verizon, where working in cross-functional teams felt very different. Some of our tech partners were a little bit more distant, some of our product teams were also a little bit more separated. There was larger organizations that we had to work within. And what cross-functional looked like was very, very different from what I had experienced before.

And so when we talk about cross-collaboration today, I'm going to be sharing it with you a perspective that starts to lend itself towards a couple of industry trends that were starting to see and starts to unpack how can we democratize more than just research to better show up as a cross-functional team? So of course I want to start by unpacking the definition of what I mean when I say collaboration. Wikipedia tells us that the collaboration is the process of two or more people, entities, or organizations working together to complete a task or achieve a goal.

Some things I want to unpack in this definition is that this is a process. This isn't some desired ideal and state that we're all striving for. This is something that we all have to actively work towards, and something that we have to consistently do over time and across projects. This is also about us working together in various cross-functional teams. Often silos can emerge. We'll talk a little bit about that.

But one of the things I want to be careful of is the idea of working together in this sort of future state of collaboration, also means maybe taking a little bit of the work off each other's plates, distributing work in a different way. This is all in service to achieve a goal. What are we striving for as a cross-functional team to support the needs of the business and to support the needs of our customers?

And so as we continue to unpack this, our industry already follows a pretty inclusive practice. I'm sure many of you are no strangers to the double diamond framework where we start with a business problem that needs to be solved for. We start with discovery. What are the customer pain points, the technological feasibility, the competitive advantage that we may have revolving around this problem?

We seek to define opportunity areas that we can manageably solve and then we developed solutions and deliver those solutions for our customers and for our business partners and ultimately for our teams. These steps in this process are things that most cross-functional teams wouldn't disagree on. Maybe there are different sub-processes, for example, product development in Agile or Scrum, or maybe designed thinking as we think about UX practitioners.

But by and large, these steps within this double diamond are not often contested. And so if we already are actively collaborating within an inclusive process that enables product content strategists, user experience professionals, and our tech partners all to show up in ways that deliver against this process. When we think about collaboration, part of that is the end goal that I also mentioned.

We can likely agree on the majority of goals that we're striving for as a cross-functional team. There are usually threefold, although there are many of them. These are just a few examples. Of course, when we work towards developing solutions, experiences or products, we're trying to increase user value. How can we increase satisfaction, efficiency, utility for our customers that we support? And how do we increase business profit?

In majority of the case, most of us are sitting in organizations or consulting with organizations. And so the nature of the game is of course to increase customer utility and value, but also to increase profit or revenue or lead generation. And while doing that, building systems and processes that make us more efficient in how we do business decreases cost, time and waste.

We see this with things like design systems where we build once and deploy everywhere, or efficiencies that we build within our process to increase speed in delivery such as Agile and Scrum, how that is taken off in our industry. And so if these are the goals that we all can roughly align on and agree to that as a cross-functional team, these are what we're striving to achieve, where are we missing?

I believe that we may be at odds with how we work together in the day-to-day. And I'm going to talk a little bit about why I think that is in some of the trends that I've been seeing, but also a solution to this problem. And so if we can agree on the end goals that we're looking to achieve, and if we can agree on the process that we generally take to get there, let's make sure that we agree with how we work with one another as a cross-functional team.

And so we're going to start by unpacking a few trends. Our field has massively grown in the past few decades. Arguably human computer interaction, the earliest sign of UX practitioners, started back in the fifties and sixties at the birth of the first computers, and has continued to evolve into the practice we often coined that that was really reaching a breaking point in the nineties, and exponentially grew through the dot com boom.

Now as our field has continued to grow, as we'll talk about specialties continue to grow, and more and more UX professionals were staffed against companies to help support them. And as we start to learn experience-led organizations often outpace S&P500. Coming out of the pandemic with things like the fourth industrial revolution and 5G technology looming and enabling better, more efficient technology, cloud computing, edge computing, all those things will make speed and efficiency paramount to how we all do our work in the future.

Also, some consumer trends through the pandemic has led to an exponential shift in growth in the adoption of the digital channel. Consumers are now on their phones and on their computers more than they ever have been before. And what that means for us as user experience practitioners and professionals is that we should see this exponential growth only continue as we move into the future.

And while we've grown as a practice, our field has matured, and as our field has matured, so have our specialties. What was once just a designer, I remember back in the day when I first joined the UX field, I was considered a web designer doing everything from creative direction to content strategy to visual design, to user experience, design and information architecture. You name it, I was doing a little bit of it, but that was spreading talent very thin, and only being able to go so deep so often. Created that waterfall methodology where I had to really dive deep into one particular topic and then the next and then the next and then the next.

But as we've continued to grow and more and more practitioners are hired into companies, we're starting to see a lot more specialties. Things like service design, where we're now focusing on backstage and front stage interactions, the processes, the workforce in order to enable better end customer experiences. UX architects continually focusing on taxonomies and information architecture.

And of course as my role is here at Capital One, I'm the director of user research for financial services, user research is becoming even more paramount and will continue to be so tomorrow as we get ahead of nascent trends for consumers adopting technology and the future usage of technology and systems tomorrow. And as we heard a little bit earlier, research operations is one of the best things that happened to the user experience field in the recent years.

And so research operations coordinators or research ops managers are starting to come into the fold to really own some of those processes and enablement for teams to really focus on delivering the work. So we start to see a lot of these specialties that used to be handled by just a generic designer are now being carved out specific so that way people can focus on honing their craft in these areas.

And now when we think about as specialties grow, role crossover does as well. This is blurring the lines. Organizations have many different title schemes often intended to create or to promote some of this crossover. For example, when I was in agency, they had UI developers, also known as creative technologists. Folks who focused on delivering front end development but with a creative lens could really lean into animations design and visual design as a backup practice.

When I was at Verizon, they had product managers called experience managers, really focusing on building a bridge between experience management and experience designers and experience researchers. These titles create purposeful crossover to sort of amplify the role that we play as a cross-functional team, that we're striving for those same goals that we talked about earlier.

Now in the state of user research report that was delivered by user interviews, 20% of those surveyed were not even researchers at all. What does that say when a fifth of the people who are being surveyed to look at the future of user research practice are not even researchers by title or trade? That shows that democratization has become so pervasive that we may have product owners or designers conducting research so often they may not even have a dedicated researcher on the team.

And as we've continued to see our craft and our field grow, design leadership has also grown. I believe it was 2020 is when they had 14,000 VP plus design roles out there in the marketplace, just in the United States alone, which shows that we are playing a stronger role at leading companies through successful change and really being drivers of the roadmap.

Now that starts to blur the lines with product or maybe business professionals who used to be the sole owners of those things in the past. Scalability in organizations is driving democratization, how we free up resources for research practitioners to focus on the work they really want to be doing. More upfront discovery and strategic research to get ahead of and to inform product roadmaps.

Will this need and the sort of plethora of business needs that are out there with a shortage of practitioners within organizations to support them means that we need to scale in new ways. So when we think about democratization, there's a positive side, not just blurring roles and blurring lines, which can be often confusing, but the positive side is that as we invite others to do more of our work, we are building understanding and empathy of our craft.

Democratizing our work, as I mentioned earlier, frees up our time to perhaps focus on the things that we are most equipped to do, the things that we want to do more of. And collaboration across research, design and product teams leads to more inclusivity in decision-making and ultimately better experiences. And so all of these trends start to show that our field is growing, our specialties have grown, and some of the lines are beginning to blur from those traditional roles. Instead of standing up a bunch of stakeholder maps or racing matrices to carve hard lines in each person's role and how they play in a cross-functional team, I invite a different perspective.

Let's talk about shared distribution. I personally believe that research should not be the only one responsible for democratizing our craft. Everyone should distribute a little bit of their work to promote cross-collaboration. We keep hearing time and again around what types of research can other people do to increase organizational-wide learning. Now I'm a firm believer in that. I think that's incredibly important, but what are the other things that some of our partners can also help to enable within the team? What are the things that we can take on as researchers to really carve our seat at the table out of stone and really support our cross-functional teams?

Here's a few examples, and there are many of them out there, activities that I believe could be democratized in order for researchers to play a bigger role in these cross-functional organizations. Things like design ideation sessions or sketching and light wire framing. Sure, I'm sure the academic researcher out there would say, "Oh my gosh, I'm terrible at sketching." But that's fine. You don't have to be Picasso. You just have to sit and think about the customer's issues that you have observed firsthand, and work elbow to elbow with your design teams on sketching out a few solutions, trying some new things out, and paper prototyping them as well.

Why is it only incumbent upon designers to take upon the idea of wire framing or sketching? Those are things that we could potentially democratize within the team to support the growth of our products and services. And product strategy, this is not unknown to us, as we continue to try to work upstream as researchers to inform the roadmap, to inform the future of our businesses. How can our product teams really empower us and enable us to say, "Hey, you, lead researcher, take this back and come to me with a recommendation for your research roadmap based on the needs of the business and the needs of our customer."

And maybe doing the same thing with our design teams, asking our design teams to create a design roadmap and then coming together to mesh and to build a full cross-functional roadmap based on product's point of view, design's point of view, researchers' point of view, and maybe content strategists' point of view. Why can't we all take a little bit of that ourselves and then come together to make sure that we can work together on a viable solution that supports everyone's learning goals, everyone's future goals.

And glossary building. This is one that I think is really interesting. As I was thinking through this, a lot of our content strategists and UX writers are leveraging the language of our customers to get closer to their understanding, build deep mental models, and support intuitiveness of interactions in our systems that we design.

How can researchers or designers help to support by building a glossary of terms or phrases that we've seen firsthand in research and supporting our content strategist by building on and updating that glossary over time so that they don't have to do all the guesswork or interpretation themselves? These are just a few examples of how I believe teams can take a little bit more on themselves and distribute a little bit of their work in order to foster deeper collaboration that we've never seen before.

And so what I invite everyone to think about is growing from a field of specialty to field of shared distribution. As I mentioned before, when a lot of user experience professionals started, they may have called themselves a jack of all trades, but that's starting to disappear more and more. Now it's still seen on smaller teams or startups where you're expected to wear multiple hats because really you're required to. Nobody else can wear those hats for you.

But in larger organizations, and even in startups, as you continue to mature user experience practice, we are starting to see this master of one situation, where we go so deep in our specialties, we have little empathy for the other trades, the other schools of work. I'd like us to really push on that a little bit more to distribute work and share in a way that is supportive of better collaboration.

And so as we think about democratization tomorrow, I'm not just thinking about research. How do we democratize more of our individual crafts to support the day-to-day responsibilities of the team and ultimately more success? And so democratization may look a little bit different than what we call it today. I want to invite everybody to be a part of this journey, rather than just informing you my point of view on how we can take collaboration to the next level with cross-functional teams. I have a few ideas of how you can start to take this back coming out of today with your teams that you work with.

Of course, continuing with unpacking what it means to democratize, the action of making something accessible to everyone. When we are talking about research democratization, we are including in that conversation the building of tools, the supporting with training, maybe providing ample time for consultation. These are things that we should consider as we democratize other things in the cross-functional team, as we democratize more pieces of design, more pieces of product and pieces of content strategy.

What are the ways and the actions you can take to make a bit of your craft accessible to everyone? And so I ask you, where else can our field intentionally distribute work and blur the lines just a little bit more? I don't think we should go from zero to 100 here. I think that there needs to be a bit of structure and a lot of intention, because we want to make sure that we are setting up the team for success, not creating the wild west.

So I think a process we should all try to follow is first bring these ideas back to your team and work together to identify opportunities where each of you want to grow, maybe distribute a bit of work, and help share more collaboration on more things. Once you've identified opportunities that feel right, a little bit of each role or pieces of each of your crafts within the cross-functional team, I invite you to create some structure just so that way you have the tools, the governance, the support for quality, so that way everyone knows what they're doing, what the responsibilities are, and how to get that work done.

There's a bit of accountability there. And after you create that structure, I invite you to pilot it. It's not something you have to immediately scale to the entirety of your organization, but something that I invite you to just try out, see how it works, change over time, and evolve your practice so that with cross-collaboration is seen more as just a team of silos, but is seen as a team that comes together and works together towards those common achievable goals.

Thank you everybody so much for listening. I really appreciate the time today and I hope that you took something away from this talk, this idea of furthering cross-collaboration to improve and deepen empathy with each of our work and taking it back to your teams to see what you can pilot, what you can add structure to, and what you can try out.

The Latest